Op-ed: Standing up for student mental health

KQED recently reported that students in the University of California system are struggling to get critical mental health services. Even at UC Berkeley, demand is at an all-time high and health directors are raising a red flag, asking for more staffing and funding.

Over the last six years, the number of students seeking help increased 37% – and they’re waiting longer to get appointments – four weeks or even longer. Often by the time they see a professional, their problems are even worse. Systemwide, 25% of the students receiving services and counseling on campus are prescribed psychotropic medications, which includes antidepressants, antipsychotics, Adderall and others.

The first step for people getting the help they need is breaking down the stigma, and due to a number of awareness campaigns, more students are comfortable utilizing the services available to them. But if we’re not meeting the demand, we run the risk of doing more harm than good.

Many of these undergraduates are still teenagers, away from home for the first time, at transitional time in their lives, or living with PTSD or serious mental health issues.

How can we expect students to thrive – let alone learn – when they’re not able to access adequate mental health services on campus?

We need to fully fund mental health care, especially for youth

As a former city council member and school board member, I know firsthand how vital, often life-saving, mental health care can be, especially for our youth, and I know there are proven solutions that work.

I helped expand funding for Medi-Cal to support mental health services for youth in foster care. I’ve been a leader standing up for improved mental health care for all communities, including expanded drug and alcohol treatment for youth, and improving mental health treatment for children exposed to trauma and violence in our communities.

Last year, I organized a forum in Berkeley with educators, school board members, parents and Berkeley High School’s principal. They shared stories and struggles of educating and guiding kids who lacked parental guidance at home or who were exposed to street and gang violence. The high school principal said that teachers and administrators end up being “the least meaningful threat these kids had seen all day.”

As part of my California’s Future Forum series, I convened a panel discussion and townhall on mental health – and our conversation was tear jerking. Every single one of us has a friend or loved one battling some kind of mental health issues. And they’re crying out, often literally, for real solutions.

We need advocates in our state legislature who will fight every single day to make children and families California’s top priority. That’s why as a member of the Assembly, I will make it my duty, my obligation to move our community and our state forward when it comes to addressing mental health care, especially when it comes to our youth.

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Tony Thurmond is a former Richmond city council member and school board member. As a social worker, he’s worked with struggling families and at-risk youth in the East Bay community for over 20 years. He is currently a director of youth programs at Lincoln Child Center and candidate for State Assembly District 15.